International

Foreign Correspondent Christopher de Bellaigue Asks, 'Should Afghanistan Exist?'

How's that for a provocative question?

In a post on the NYR Blog, the Tehran-based journalist examines "an approximate map" of Afghanistan's "major ethnolinguistic groups," including Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek, and Baluchi, versions of which "adorn conference rooms in military bases, ministry buildings and NGO headquarters."

The centrifugal forces hinted at in this ethnic cartography seem to militate against Afghanistan’s survival, but maps can be misleading if they are not accompanied by other information. Afghanistan survived a savage civil war in the 1990s without coming apart. Today, the country’s strongest political movement is the Taliban, which has partially reinvented itself as a nationalist movement — clearly, the idea of Afghanistan resonates strongly with many people.

De Bellaigue points to another map, drawn from Thomas Barfield's Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, which he reviews in the most-recent issue of The New York Review of Books.

It "shows that every spring up to a million nomadic shepherds, from many disparate Afghan tribes, drive their flocks hundreds of miles from the border areas towards the well-watered highlands of the Hindu Kush that bestride the center of the country."

At the end of his review, which he wrote after a reporting trip to Afghanistan, de Bellaigue comes to this grim conclusion:

Were the Americans to leave Afghanistan, it is likely that Tajik warlords would take power in Kabul, leading to an intense and disastrous struggle with the Taliban and their allies in the south. The best that can be hoped for is that changes in American policies will help Karzai press for political reconciliation, and that new partnerships will be formed that express the interests of Afghanistan’s different communities and their shared yearning for peace.

In the meantime, the war intensifies, with no sign of real victory in sight. The errors of the past—installing Karzai, imposing a centralized system that barely takes into account local power structures, tolerating vast corruption—have made the war harder for the US to fight. It is far from clear that Obama has the vision and courage—or the political support at home and among US allies—to devise policies that can end it.

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